July 17, 2019

Grattan on Friday: What Labor has to fear is the Big Scare

Grattan on Friday: What Labor has to fear is the Big Scare

Asked this week to nominate Labor’s main problem, one insider said
“time”. As the very remote possibility of a March election drifted
away, the opposition bunkered down for the long wait until May 11 or

Labor has an entrenched lead in the polls and, from its frontbench to
its campaign planning, it is match-ready. But there’s no match at the moment. While some government MPs worry things will get even worse for them as time passes, it can equally be argued that the downside risk for Labor is as great.

This revolves around how effective the scares being rolled out against
the ALP will be.

Though it is generally believed a minor miracle would be needed to
rescue the Morrison government, the Coalition judges the best way to
“save furniture” is to wave the fear flags.

“Scare” campaigns are distasteful but potent: Labor’s Mediscare in
2016 was dishonest but brutally effective.

This is well-ploughed territory. In notes written at the time, then
Liberal federal director Tony Eggleton documents the success of the
Coalition’s 1980 fear-mongering.

The election “was particularly heavy going … the opinion polling was
not encouraging” for the Fraser government, Eggleton wrote. Then
“Labor inadvertently tossed us a lifeline in the final stages of the

“One of their spokesmen cost the opposition dearly by raising, albeit
tentatively, the prospect of capital gains taxes on the family home.
We jumped on this and the unpalatable new tax was made the dominant
issue for the last week of the campaign.

“Television and radio messages and full page press advertisements
warned of Labor’s threat to the family home. The day before election
day our pollster Gary Morgan was able to report that for the first
time in the campaign the polls showed us drawing ahead of Labor. He
predicted the possibility at the last minute we had enough momentum to
get over the line”.

Which Malcolm Fraser duly did.

Eggleton also recorded that “the negativity and the tactics were
controversial even among the Liberals but the political hardheads were
of the view that the end justified the means”.

The Morrison government has been stepping up its scares since the
start of the year. Two major targets are Labor’s proposed crackdown on
negative gearing and capital gains and its plan to scrap cash refunds
for franking credits (both cast against the background of Labor
raising taxes). A more general scare is being run claiming a Shorten
government would harm the economy.

The latter illustrates how scare campaigns can be complex and carry
the danger of backfiring.

In a Tuesday speech Scott Morrison claimed a Labor government would lead to a “weaker” economy. He didn’t say it would put Australia into recession, but he highlighted that many workers hadn’t experienced a recession – enough for an Age headline “PM warns recession on way under Labor”. Defence Minister Christopher Pyne declared unequivocally: “There will be a recession in Australia if Labor wins”.

Morrison then found himself on the spot, caught between what he’d said, what he was taken as implying, and what Pyne had asserted.

Amid the confusion, it’s unclear whether this scare would have been a
plus or a minus for the government. It contained another risk too –
any talk of a recession is itself bad for the economy, including for
overseas perceptions of Australia.

The scares over the negative gearing and franking policies are less
complicated, focusing on and magnifying the losers.

Labor first announced its negative gearing revamp last term, when
house prices were rising. Since then, prices in Sydney and Melbourne
have been falling.

This has made it easier for the government to whip up concerns about
the impact of the policy on house values.

The centrality of their house in the thinking of so many Australians
makes this hazardous territory for Labor, however rational its policy.

In the changing circumstances, Labor does have a modest element of
flexibility to play with, because it has not yet announced the start

But to fireproof itself on negative gearing, Labor needs to work harder
on both reassurance (the fact existing negatively-geared properties
would be grandfathered) and selling the policy’s advantages (linking it more strongly to the aspirations of first home buyers).

Anything that affects retirees is another highly sensitive area electorally.

It has been reported that Labor is discounting the political impact of
its franking credits policy because it calculates that many of those hit are already likely to be Liberal voters.

But it would be unwise to be complacent – in the way the Liberals were
for a time about Mediscare in 2016.

And in the hyped climate before an election, any throwaway line can be
weaponised, as shadow treasurer Chris Bowen found this week.

Under questioning about a listener’s view on the franking
issue, Bowen told the ABC: “I say to your listener: if they feel very
strongly about this, if they feel that this is something which should
impact on their vote they are of course perfectly entitled to vote
against us”.

It was a statement of the obvious, although it also came across as
reflecting some frustration.

But the comment took off in the media. “ALP goads seniors: vote
against us”, The Australian headlined its Thursday lead story.
Morrison said the Bowen comment was “arrogant”; Bill Shorten was grilled.

None of the above is to overlook that the government has had another
bad few days, despite Newspoll giving it a small summer lift (from
trailing 45-55% before Christmas to 47-53% now).

Two more ministers, Michael Keenan and Nigel Scullion, have announced
they will leave at the election.

Three high profile independents have emerged in heartland Liberal
seats: Zali Steggall in Warringah; Oliver Yates in Kooyong, and Julia
Banks (Liberal defector now on the crossbench) who plans to run in

All three are highlighting climate change and the fractures in the
Liberal party.

The chances of Yates and Banks are low but Steggall is a real threat
to Tony Abbott in Warringah.

The government in general remains in bad shape on multiple fronts, and
Scott Morrison often sounds desperate.

The Coalition does have the April 2 budget as an opportunity to
improve its fortunes – on the other hand, if that goes badly it will
be another own goal.

The budget will offer the sugar, the incentives, the bribes to voters.
But it will be the scares that will be the government’s strongest
ammunition. The question will be: how far can these bullets penetrate
Labor’s armour?

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


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